Photography took over the German city of Hamburg during the last two weeks of June thanks to the 6th edition of the Hamburg Triennial of Photography . The directorship of the 2015 edition was handed over to Krzysztof Candrowicz, director of Polish culture and curator, who is the main force behind many cultural events in Poland and abroad. This year’s motto ‘THE DAY WILL COME’ aimed to inspire international artists and photographers to consider the idea of the future – both in general and in terms of the photographic medium itself. Luckily for Polish art lovers, quite a number of Polish photographers were invited to participate. In this case let’s take a closer look at the Polish works.
The already well-established Sputnik Photos collective prepared four different projects united by the common theme ‘THE DAY WILL COME WHEN THE PAST MEETS THE FUTURE’. Adam Pańczuk, Michał Łuczak, Rafał Milach, and Agnieszka Rayss (listed here according to the order in which their shows appear on the Triennial’s website) were invited to work with Hamburg museum archives and create new work in response to the archival material and the overarching ‘future’ theme. The final results were exhibited alongside archival photographs as part of three separate shows spread around the city.
Fofftein: Living and Working in Hamburg – Photographs from Germin, Thomas Henning, and Adam Pańczuk exhibited at the Museum der Arbeit (Museum of Work) included historic archival photographs of Hamburg’s citizens at work juxtaposed with contemporary images of the city and its people by Adam Pańczuk. As a whole, the exhibition discussed the concept of Hamburg’s iconic photographs, trying to decode the process in which specific images become recognisable and memorable visual representations of places, people, and times, whereas other images fall into oblivion. Pańczuk’s response – the City Lab project – was an attempt to document the constantly changing cityscape of Hamburg. The photographer intentionally looked for spaces of transition that had lost their original functions but are yet to be fully transformed. In addition to places caught up in that stage of limbo, Pańczuk also photographed the local population, wondering whether the people he would meet there 30-50 years from now on would be similar, or whether the demographics would change entirely. As Pańczuk had said in an interview with Stefan Rahner (the curator of the Fofftein show), this was a sort of decisive moment, but on different terms then in the case of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Whereas Bresson is mostly famous for his candid street photography, with every single element and figure captured exactly in the right time and place, it seems that Pańczuk attempted something completely different, as if he was trying to create a contemporary portrait of Hamburg – a portrait documenting that single place and moment in time.
The next exhibition featuring Polish photography is Urban Image Change: Hamburg in Photographs 1870 – 1914 / 2014: Georg Koppmann, Wilhelm Weimer / Rafał Milach, Michał Łuczak located at the Hamburg Museum. The museum presented 19th and early 20th century historical images of the city from its monumental and largely unknown archive, installed alongside contemporary works created by Milach and Łuczak in response to the archive. The photographers, wanting to remain true to their diverse concepts and ideas born out of the interaction with the archive, decided to split the task and effectively created two separate series, where one visualises his failure to comprehend the future (or in fact the present, I should say), and the other unearths the past. Let’s begins with the latter.
Michał Łuczak’s Altenwerder and Neuenfelde – named after two quarters of Hamburg – are an attempt to record something ‘that used to be’; to record places and objects that have been long-forgotten and might soon be gone for ever. The photographs depict wild thicket and chaotic vegetation alongside studio-like shots of various found objects set against a white background, as well as close-up interior details of abandoned houses. I can almost feel the fascination and child-like thrill that must have accompanied Łuczak when discovering these places and trying to uncover their secrets. On the other hand, there is undoubtedly a strong sense of sadness and nostalgia emanating from these works. When reading a conversation between Łuczak and the curator of the Hamburg Museum, where the photographer recalls he regretted not having a shovel during his field trips, one starts to realise that Altenwerder and Neuenfelde are not just records of a bygone era. They are in fact an attempt at illustrating the visual archaeology of Hamburg, where Łuczak wanted to literally dig out stories hidden beneath a tuft of moss creeping up the walls or lurking behind torn wallpaper in deserted, long-forgotten parts of the city.
On the other side of the spectrum we have Where the Atoms Die by Rafał Milach. As a response to Koppmann’s historical images of former modern power stations or specialist heavy-duty cranes, Milach’s aim was to create a catalogue of advanced technologies shaping the image of Hamburg today. In spite of Milach’s intense research and access to specialist knowledge, his failure to comprehend the reality was imminent. Factual records of technological and scientific advances give way to artistic abstraction, where the only understandable information we’re presented with are the captions. A black geometric shape on a white background turns out to be an architectural element of a concert hall currently under construction in Hamburg. A very abstract and delicate-looking object suspended in the air, which could be easily reminiscent of contemporary sculpture or Kandinsky’s paintings, transforms into 3-D scanner scraps upon inspecting the caption. Whilst observing a dark mysterious tunnel I can almost hear myself asking whether this is where atoms die… Images from Milach’s new project leave the viewer perplexed and confused, and rightly so. Eventually unable to comprehend the nuances of contemporary technology and science, Milach offers a visual proof of his failure – shared by most of us – to understand the increasingly complicated world around us.
The last Sputnik project at the Triennial is The Unicorn and Other Objects by Agnieszka Rayss, which is part of a larger exhibition Quiet peasants and sturdy fisherman? Northern Germany in Photography at the Altonaer Museum. Curators of the museum decided to show the photographic collection depicting landscapes and traditional life in Northern Germany of the late 19th and early 20th century. Rayss’s task was to work with the collection and subsequently create a contemporary image of the region. Since photographing the entire region in a short space of time proved impossible and wasn’t really what Rayss was after, she decided to dig deeper. The photographer soon realised that what interested her most was the concept of an archive and how it can shape a certain representation of reality, but is also in fact a reflection of a certain reality. A true turning point came during her visit to the Altonaer Museum’s warehouse. The sight of museum exhibits all wrapped up was so inspiring and refreshing that she decided to produce an image of contemporary Northern Germany through photographing regional museum collections. The cycle consists of close-up studio-like shots of various exhibits placed against neutral backgrounds. Items are isolated and taken out of context – photographed this way they are like pieces of reality served one bite at a time. As such the entire series becomes an archive in itself, where the author has mixed and matched different items according to her subjective taste. When looking at the images, we can let our imagination run free (unless of course we decide to read the captions before looking at the photographs). All of a sudden we can really see they do hide a unicorn somewhere in Northern Germany, don’t they?
Last but not the least we have the Container City on Deichtorplatz featuring exhibitions by ten European photo festival and photography schools. This great idea inspired by Photoville, a leading American photo festival, lent itself to creating an entire village of industrial shipping containers completely taken over by photography with a solid Polish presence. Given the present close links between Hamburg and Lodz thanks to the figure of Krzysztof Candrowicz, who happens himself to be a proud Lodzianin [person from the city of Lodz], Lodz FOTOFESTIWAL – one of the biggest photography events in Poland – and the renowned Lodz Film School could not be missed.
Lodz FOTOFESTIWAL was represented by Artur Urbański’s solo exhibition Live View, which might ring a bell if you’ve read an article about Polish photography shown at FORMAT Festival earlier this year published in Contemporary Lynx . The series consists of classically composed landscapes with human figures caught in the moment of photographing the scenes in front of them (and in front of Artur Urbański, and now subsequently in front of us too). We encounter Swiss glaciers, a Moroccan desert at sunset, and a turquoise lagoon somewhere in the Mediterranean amongst other stunning locations. In light of Hamburg Triennale’s ‘future’ theme, the Live View project can be seen as a visual commentary on the state of photography today. Urbański’s cycle discusses how we experience events and places, how we remember them, and what role photography plays in all of this. Important life events, exotic travels, or even something as unimportant as our breakfasts are photographed millions of times by millions of people around the world. Cheap digital cameras and easily accessible mobile phones with cameras mean that today every individual is a photographer to a certain extent. After studying Urbański’s images closely, it seems that a contemporary saying of ‘I photograph, therefore I am’ could be possibly adopted as one of the philosophies of our times.
The other Polish exhibition in the Container City, and the last one at the Triennial, prepared by the Photography Department of the Lodz Film School also in a way touches upon similar themes. Their Waste Index show curated by Ewa Ciechanowska and comprising works of the School’s students and graduates is a group reflection on different visions of future. Prompted by the increasing excess of things, images, information, and expectations, all four authors consider what’s next and try to understand what we are prepared to lose, what we want to keep, and what we can get rid of in this increasingly saturated and materialistic world. Inside the container we can see images extracted from four different standalone projects. Thus we have one big print from I can’t speak. I’m sorry project by Przemek Dzienis, which is concerned with spatial relationships between people and objects. We have a few images by Anna Orłowska from her Leakage, where she tests the limits of photography set by our imagination. Rejected by Tomasz Pastyrczyk is a series of studio-like images of car wrecks against a white background, which for the author symbolise lives that have come to an end. This series is represented by one enormous banner image of an old Wartburg wreck blown up on a 1:1 scale and fixed to an outer wall of the container. Finally we have a few images from Igor Pisuk’s Deceitful Reverence, a personal story and a multi-layered document about loneliness and emigration, presented in contrasting black-and-white shots, as well as strongly saturated colourful images.
Indeed, Polish photography had quite a solid presence in Hamburg. Although the Triennial has already ended on the 28th June, some of the exhibitions are open until autumn 2015, so make sure you get the chance to see them whilst in the city or nearby.